On Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 7, before 100 senators — standing, almost silent — President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was confirmed in the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol. It was a historic but predicted squeaker: 51 votes to 50. The vice president was called in for the first time in U.S. history to break a tie vote on a Cabinet nomination.
DeVos was almost immediately sworn into office by the same vice president.
In the District, the news generated mixed feelings, at best, on the part of education leaders and Mayor Muriel Bowser. “We have to stand up for public education because that’s what our children need,” she said to thousands of onlookers at the Women’s March, a day after the inauguration of President Trump. The District is in a unique fiscal position, since Congress can control how the city spends its tax money.
But at first glance it’s not clear why there would be concern about DeVos. The new education secretary states often that she is for school choice and diversity — two mainstays of D.C.’s liberal Democratic philosophy. She seems to recognize that children learn in widely different ways when she says, “No one size of education delivery will fit all.” She is on record as a supporter of public money for a broad range of schools, from traditional comprehensive public schools to parochial schools to home-based schools to charter schools. And she’s for vouchers — distributed by the states — for everyone, not just the poor.
These stands are not incompatible with the way D.C. runs its schools. The District has a three-pronged approach, with federal funds going to a choice of traditional public and charter schools and vouchers. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program distributes millions of federal dollars to fund private-school vouchers — mainly for the District’s lower-income residents.
In fact, Washington is known for being “a darling of choice” because of its large charter sector, which educates nearly half of the public students in the city. DeVos would make it “even more choice heavy than vouchers,” according to the Washington Post.
The main concern was that DeVos favors sending federal money back to the states in block grants to let them decide how to spend it. Whether in D.C.’s case that would go to the District government or remain in Congressional hands is the question.
After meeting with then President-elect Trump last month, Bowser told the press that she thought he “had a grasp” on how the D.C. system works. But Jennifer Budoff, the D.C. Council’s budget director, expressed concern. “They can do whatever they want including immediate changes,” she said. “They can change the balance which has so far worked in the District.”
DeVos’s enthusiastic support for charter schools and vouchers for everyone has been the principal reason for the at-times harsh resistance to her nomination. Charters are controversial nationally for being free from union collective-bargaining agreements. They can and do fire and hire teachers at will, base pay on (student) performance criteria and demand longer and more days in school. They are fiercely resisted by teachers’ unions.
The two Republican senators who voted again DeVos’s nomination — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — did so out of concern over her promise to expand public support for charters and vouchers at the expense of public schools.
“That is something that could make D.C. even more choice-heavy,” according to the Heritage Foundation’s Director of Education Policy Lindsey Burke. But it’s also something Bowser could fight to keep in balance.